In Decadent Style, John Reed defines “decadent art” broadly enough to encompass literature, music, and the visual arts and precisely enough to examine individual works in detail. Reed focuses on the essential characteristics of this style and distinguishes it from non–esthetic categories of “decadent artists” and “decadent themes.”
Like the natural sciences and psychology, the arts in the late nineteenth century reflect an interest in the process of atomization. Literature and the other arts mirror this interest by developing, or rather elaborating, existing forms to the point of what appears to be dissolution. Instead of these forms dissolving, however, they require their audience’s participation and thus involve a new order. Reed argues that this process of reordering characterizes decadent style, which depends upon sensory provocation resolvable only through negation and is therefore bounded by philosophical and emotional assumptions of inevitable frustration.
Drawing upon the literature, music, and visual arts of England and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, Reed provides a widely ranging and authoritative overview of decadent style, which relates such artists as Huysmans, Wilde, D’Annunzio, Moreau, Bresdin, Klimt, Klinger, Wagner, and Strauss. He related decadent style to Pre–Raphaelite and Naturalist preoccupation with detail and to aesthetic and Symbolist fascination with sensibility and idealism. Ultimately, Reed argues, decadent style is a late stage of Romanticism, overshadowed by Symbolism but anticipating, in its attempt to yoke incompatibilities and to engender a new cerebral form, some of the main traits of Modernism.
Attitudes toward punishment and forgiveness in English society of the nineteenth century came, for the most part, out of Christianity. In actual experience the ideal was not often met, but in the literature of the time the model was important. For novelists attempting to tell exciting and dramatic stories, violent and criminal activities played an important role, and, according to convention, had to be corrected through poetic justice or human punishment. Both Dickens’ and Thackeray’s novels subscribed to the ideal, but dealt with the dilemma it presented in slightly different ways.
At a time when a great deal of attention has been directed toward economic production and consumption as the bases for value, Reed’s well-documented study reviving moral belief as a legitimate concern for the analysis of nineteenth-century English texts is particularly illuminating.
This new study offers a general reassessment of H. G. Wells as a writer and thinker. It concentrates upon the close relationship between Wells’ developing philosophy and his literary techniques. The early chapters examine Wells’ treatment of such subjects as confinement and escape, sex, the nature of human identity, the relationship of individual to race, human progress, and the importance of education. At the same time, the describe the emotional topography that Wells created as a mean of vivifying his ideas, a topography constructed from image complexes largely based upon the analogy between individual and racial evolution.
The major contribution of the book comes in its later chapters, which deal with Wells’ metaphysical assumptions and his approach to his craft. His views on free will and strength of will were intimately related to his methods of literary composition. The important later chapters detail this relationship, while describing some of Wells’ characteristic literary devices, such as the intentional violations of certain novelistic conventions or the sly borrowing from and alluding to contemporary works of literature in what amounted to a covert polemic.
On the whole, this study argues for a coherent and consistent, though developing, philosophy operating throughout Wells’ career and manifested in experimental literary works which, while not always successful, were consistently inventive and intelligently crafted in the service of Wells’ principle aim, the education of the human species to a command of its own destiny.
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